Progress and Its Critics

By Christopher Lasch

Norton. 591 pp. $25

WHEN I WAS a new young professor, I taught a seminar on the idea of progress. The concepts I trotted out in that course were fairly primitive -- though not as primitive as some of the ideas about progress held by American corporations.

This was the era when General Electric used to advertise that progress was its most important product, and a giant chemical company like Allied claimed that it was "pacing progress -- through chemistry." As one minor twist in the seminar, we wrote to all the big corporations that identified their activities with progress, and asked them how they knew a piece of progress when they saw one.

My absolute favorite answer came from Allied. Clearly the letter got turned over to some PR man of an unphilosophical bent. "By progress, we mean progress in all its forms and of every variety," he wrote back. And then, presumably with a sigh of relief, turned to more important work, such as denying that there was any relation between DDT and dead birds.

What the corporations did mean by progress, of course, whether they could articulate it or not, was increased human power, whether in the form of a fast car, a potent insecticide, a solar panel.

In his new book, Christopher Lasch does not have primitive ideas of progress. He knows very well that progress is a name for different kinds of change. There's moral progress (abolition of slavery, decline of patriarchy, etc.), intellectual progress (understanding the quark), standard-of-living progress ("a never-ending redefinition of luxuries as necessities"), and so on. None of that interests him very much. He is after bigger game. He gets it, too.

What really interests Lasch is that the idea of progress has connected human ambitions with infinity. As he says early in the book, to a believer progress is "the promise of steady improvement with no foreseeable ending at all." And as he goes on to explain, this means that men (and women) are never to be satisfied. They are always to want more. More what? More everything. More toys, more cars, more years of life, more power over nature. His key point: "Insatiable appetites, formerly condemned as a source of social instability and personal unhappiness," now are seen as a good thing. They "drive the economic machine," just as insatiable curiosity drives the scientific enterprise. It amounts (this is my phrase, not Lasch's) to a sort of universal nymphomania or satyriasis.

Such ideas, as Lasch amply documents, could seem plausible in the 18th century, all but inevitable in the 19th. They cannot hold up now. "Earth's ecology will no longer sustain an indefinite expansion of productive forces." The problem of poverty can no longer be imagined as soluble by making everybody rich. "Luxury for all," Lasch concludes his long and powerful argument, is not possible.

Does that mean he wants to keep the poor in their place? While a privileged few wallow in luxury? Hardly. What he wants is to end wallowing. He is pursuing the old populist ideal of competence -- meaning both a modest fortune and a set of skills. He praises the petty-bourgeois: the person who can be satisfied, who accepts limits and works happily within them.

Impressive as this argument is (and correct, too, I think), Lasch's book seems to me quite heavily flawed. Do you know the kind of book called something like "Masterplots"? Such a book will contain one-page plot summaries of 500 novels. College students, I suppose, buy a copy so as to write papers without actually reading their assignments. Lasch does what amounts to thought-summaries of a couple of hundred works of sociology, philosophy, religion and government. Not only that, he links them. A answers B, and is himself corrected by C -- who, however, was so unwise as to ignore F.

Sometimes all this seems central to the book's argument, and sometimes it just seems like a man of immensely wide reading who chooses to pour everything in. (Limits, Mr. Lasch! Limits.)

So much is this so, and so various are the books he summarizes, that one almost inevitably winds up imagining new subtitles for his book. He called it The True and Only Heaven, and subtitled it "Progress and Its Critics." It could with small loss in accuracy also be subtitled "Democracy and Its Doubters" or "Rationalists and Their Emotions" or even "Populists and Their Enemies."

I have one more objection still. This last one is to a stylistic tic. Lasch has a habit of holding himself aloof, not only from many of the thinkers he discusses, but from the language itself. This you see in the way he uses quotation marks -- as tongs to hold words at a distance.

He'll speak of an extended family with "an abundance of 'significant others.' " If he doesn't like the phrase "significant others," no one is making him use it. If he uses it, he doesn't need to hold his nose. Or he'll speak of "reverence for maternal 'influence' " (it's part of middle-class morality). Why is "influence" in quotes? It's been a respectable word for some centuries. The habit is annoying.

And that's a pity, because this book has much to say to anyone busy thinking what a possible future for America or for the world could be. One would wish it to be as accessible and as much a pleasure to read as possible.

Noel Perrin teaches American literature and Environmental Studies at Dartmouth. His next book is called "A Noel Perrin Sampler."